I was first introduced to D&D in 1979 by some friends in school and was soon addicted. I spent inumerable hours creating maps and dungeons for my buddies to explore, and rolling up characters to populate my own worlds or to play in another kid’s campaign. I played straight through high school but only occassionally when I’d return home from college. After college our group switched to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (a Games Workshop game for which there were some awesome modules being written at the time), but I’ll never forget the real thrill of adventure of those early D&D sessions. Perhaps in a bid to recapture some of that spirit, or maybe because my own kids have expressed an interest in the game I recently picked up a couple of books about the history of the creation of D&D and its legacy.
The first, Empire of Imagination is a short book by Michael Witwer which focuses on the life of one of the creators of D&D, Gary Gygax. Its a biography of sorts, as well as an entertaining history of D&D, Gary’s life, how he made his passion for wargaming into a business, how he lost control of that business, and his legacy. Witwer does a fairly good job of recounting the history of Gary’s personal saga but it seems to be written from a fan’s point of view and comes off a bit one-sided. I would have liked to see more interviews and stories from other perspectives – especially from Dave Arneson, the main co-creator of D&D who is painted in a less than flattering light. All in all though my main gripe about the book is that it was too short, which is a criticism all authors should strive for.
I then read Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt. Ewalt treats the subject of roleplaying with an obvious reverence which all gamers can appreciate. He includes interviews with a wide range of folks, reports from the field from gaming conventions, and recounts his visit to Gary Gygax’s home town and the memorial Gary Con. Obviously targeted at folks who don’t know very much about roleplaying, the book is heavy on explanation of the topic which might make it slow for hard-core gamers. The story is sprinkled with vignettes describing the heroic actions of various gaming personas using in-game prose which gives a real flavour for what roleplaying is all about. Entertaining and informative, the book does tend to center very much around Ewalt and his personal experiences which can start to read more like a blog than a history, though his boots-on-the-ground investigative work and extensive footnotes counter this to some extent.
These books reminded me of how much I miss playing D&D regularly. Both provide a lot of references which have already led me to several lost nights of investigation on the internet researching the colorful cast of characters who surrounded Gary and have continued to create great games since those early days. I can recommend both!